In the late fifties H.V. Morton departed from his more personal style of travel writing when he teamed up with the American Catholic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and the Armenian-born photographer Yousuf Karsh. Together they produced two volumes, “This is Rome” (Hawthorn Books, New York, 1959) and “This is the Holy Land” (Hawthorn Books, New York, 1961) that were described as ‘pilgrimages in words and pictures’.
These two books were published in the USA, UK and Canada. They were, respectively, the second and third in a series of four books published by Hawthorn Books of New York. The other two titles in the series were: (the first) “This is the Mass” (1958), as celebrated by Fulton Sheen and described by Henri Daniel-Rops, photographed by Yousuf Karsh, and translated by Alistair Guinan; and (the fourth) “These are the Sacraments” (1962), by Fulton Sheen, again with photographs by Yousuf Karsh.
You may be interested to know than in recent years a campaign has begun that is hoped will lead to the beatification of Fulton Sheen, which is the route to sainthood.
Fulton John Sheen was born in El Paso, Illinois in May 1895, his grandparents having originated from Ireland. He grew to become a brilliant scholar but he turned down a university scholarship to follow his vocation into the priesthood, being ordained in 1919. He went on to receive a degree in Canon Law in America followed by a Doctorate at the University of Louvain in Belgium. Then, after spending a period as a priest in a rural parish, he began teaching at both the Catholic University of America and at St Edmund’s College, Ware, England. He had substantial links with the UK, being a friend of G.K. Chesterton.
The covers of three special editions
During this time it became apparent that he had a great gift for communication, which has resulted in him now being regarded as one of the greatest preachers of the last century. In 1930 he began the Catholic Hour broadcast on radio which ran for twenty-one years, and on Easter Sunday 1940 he spoke on the first televised religious service in the USA.
But he is perhaps best remembered for his series of 129 programmes of Life is Worth Living, which went out in the 1950s, and his anti-communist message. In 1951 he was consecrated as a Bishop of the Church and on his retirement in 1969 the Pope appointed him Titular Archbishop of Newport in South Wales.
Although outwardly he was a serious person he was also very fond of humour and laughter, so no doubt he shared many a joke with H.V. Morton during their whistle-stop tours through Rome and the Holy Land. He died aged 83 in 1979, the same year in which HVM also died.
In 1999 the late Cardinal O’Connor of New York formally initiated the lengthy process that may in time lead to Fulton Sheen’s sainthood.
(This article was originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.29 on 19 October 2004)
After the armistice of 1918 the little Society of St Barnabas dedicated itself to a simple aim – “No grave on the Western Front, or farther afield still can be regarded as truly consecrated until it has been visited by its rightful warden”. True to its word, as soon as the Imperial War Graves Commission had completed its plans and the War Cemeteries were ready to be visited, for the next seven years St Barnabas set about contacting thousands of the relatives of the fallen and assisting them as they undertook the long pilgrimage until almost every known grave in what had been the Western European theatre of war during the conflict of 1914 to 1918 had been visited.
After that, only one duty remained. The Missing. For those thousands of soldiers lying in France and Belgium who had no known grave the idea was conceived of making the new Menin Gate, spanning the main eastern exit from the old town of Ypres, a memorial to those who had fallen in the Ypres Saleint and whose resting-places were “Known only to God”. The British Missing alone numbered some fifty-five thousand, their names engraved into the walls of the gate, representing almost every regiment and place in the then British Empire.
As a final gesture therefore, St. Barnabas staff and helpers arranged a last pilgrimage enabling seven hundred relatives of the Missing, mostly working women who had lost sons or husbands, to attend the unveiling and dedication of the Menin Gate in 1927. For some this was a severe ordeal, arrangements for travel and accommodation were not always ideal and many were elderly or infirm. But all the Pilgrims endured and returned safely having visited the land in which their men had fallen and seen their names set up in honour above the soil which somewhere contained them.
The passage above was adapted from the introduction to a 1927 publication entitled “Menin Gate Pilgrimage“. This rare volume (only 300 were produced) is roughly A4 size, bound with blue hardback boards and comprises fifty-two pages. It contains a number of articles giving an account of the final pilgrimage of some seven-hundred bereaved relatives to the unveiling of the shrine to the Missing, the new Menin Gate at Ypres, built by the British on land generously given by the Belgian people, through whose previous incarnation so many thousands of troops had marched to the trenches for the last time during the First World War. The publication was produced for those women unable, mostly because of age or disability, to attend the ceremony in person.
One of the most moving sections is entitled Threshold of the Empire (a title given to the Menin Gate during the war) and was written by HV Morton, originally appearing in the Daily Express on 25th July 1927. The full text is given below.
We will remember They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old; Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them.
Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England
THRESHOLD OF THE EMPIRE
By H.V. Morton
There were 700 of them from the towns and villages of England. Each one of them has a boy whose grave is known only to God. There are rows of such nameless graves in every cemetery on the Salient. And the mothers had taken their first adventure in travel to see the great white gate on which, engraved among 55,000 others, are the names of their own boys.
In the early sunlight they stood at the station at Ypres holding little bunches of flowers from English gardens. They had guarded them carefully through all the hazards of a Channel crossing. Many a rose had fallen, many a snapdragon had wilted; but the mothers held on to them.
They looked so strange standing there on this foreign platform, with the ghost of an English kitchen behind each one, the ghost of a little street in England, the ghost of a little sitting-room where his picture hangs in a frame.
They were tired and hungry, and a little dazed by the foreign turmoil in which they found themselves. The first thing they noticed as they trooped slowly out in a long line was the old steam tramcar that runs to Kemmel.
“Oh, look!” said one. “That must be the ‘san fairy ann’ Tom used to tell us about!”
And they smiled as the old ‘san fairy ann’ gave its characteristic hiss and meandered casually to some remote objective.
So the mothers entered Ypres.
I shall never forget that sight. I think it was the most touching thing I have seen in Flanders. Their feet moved over the pavé of Ypres, and their eyes, straying from point to point, noticed just the same thing their boys noticed when they walked that same pavé many years ago – the dogs pulling the early morning milkcart.
How the boys hated that!
“Ah, you lazy blighters,” they used to say to the Belgian milkmen.
The Menin Gate during the war
Down a side-street they caught a glimpse of the shattered Cloth Hall. They remembered that. Tom had told them. They passed, without knowing, the site of the old dug-out in which Tom, with indelible pencil marks all over his lip, used painfully to begin a letter: “Dear Mother, …” And “Dear Mother” was walking through Ypres. How incredible that would have seemed to Tom!
They went through the white Menin Gate, where already a great gathering had assembled. When they saw the long line of names on the stone – 55,000 names – tears came into their eyes. Tom was there, a little name on Menin Gate.
They sat in special enclosures, and watched the hot sunlight fall on the white stone and on the sitting lion over the portico who gazes out over the Salient. They thought he was a “nice” lion. He looked very proud.
They did not know that they were sitting on the road to Hell Fire Corner. Oh, Ghost of Ypres, what sight could amaze you more than that of “Dear Mother” so near to Hell Fire Corner holding a bunch of flowers from the front garden at home?
Then the ceremony began …
The buglers stood facing the Menin road, and blew their call towards the old front line.
No sooner had their last note faded than the pipers of the Scots Guards, standing outlined against the sky, high on the great rampart, played the lament, “The Flowers of the Forest,” and the wind, catching the sound of the wild Highland pipes, carried it out over the Salient, over the little dips and hollows in the green fields which were once trenches. There were dim eyes in Ypres to-day.
The sound of the pipes in that place was indescribable. One forgot the Menin Gate, the crowd, the very scene itself, and one’s thoughts went out into the open country, where the corn now waves and flowers grow, and one waited there with aching heart at the end; waited, it seemed, for some signal which should have come from out there along the Menin road.
The King and the generals went, the officers of state and the guards of honour departed, leaving the Menin Gate to the mothers of England. They came to it bravely, so bravely and calmly, holding their little posies of English flowers. All once could do was to put one’s arm in theirs, as if they had been one’s own mother, and, pointing high up on Menin Gate, spell out a name to them.
“That’s him,” they said, and cried a little.
Then they hung their appealing flowers on Menin Gate; little clusters of rambler roses, snapdragons, lilies, all from England. The wind of God will take the message of these English flowers and bear it over those little lost corners of a foreign field which are “For Ever England.”
(Originally circulated on 11/11/20 as HVM Society Snippet – No.269)
I was lucky enough to spot this copy of Illustrated Magazine for sale online and even luckier to be able to acquire it before anyone else got to it! On arrival I discovered it was in a very fragile state so I photographed it and archived it post haste but I thought you might be interested in hearing about it.
The subject is the 25th wedding anniversary of King George VI and “his queen Elizabeth“. The central article is written by HV Morton and I have enclosed it below along with a few pictures and adverts to give an impression of the journal. As ever with publications of this age it is the advertisments which give a real feel for the times. Everything from constipation cures to budgie seed and catarrh pastilles (to prevent your husband catching a cold!) to invitations to join the women’s land army all reflect the anxieties and interests of the day.
In the article, Morton demonstrates his expertise by giving a ‘broad-brush’ view of history as he recounts a potted overview of the 25 years of the King’s marriage which, as you would imagine, were some pretty turbulent years. He describes Britain between the wars as it was at the time of their marriage, “an agitator called Adolf Hitler [who] was frequently in trouble with the police“, the birth of their children including the future monarch HRH Queen Elizabeth, the coming of the wireless and the later bombing of Buckingham Palace in the blitz. Morton also mentions the abdication of Edward VIII which resulted in George’s surprise elevation to the throne in 1936 – a difficult subject that HVM handles like the expert he was.
It is a testament to Morton’s hard work and popularity that there are still unexpected articles like this to be found and to thrill us even after all these years.
Silver Wedding Yearby H. V. MORTON
(Photographed by William Vanderson)
On this April 26, King George and Queen Elizabeth will have been married twenty-five years. As they drive on Monday to St. Paul’s, the memories of the years will flood back, years of happiness, years of war. And now the nation will rejoice in this Silver Anniversary of a King and Queen who have become so much a part of our everyday life.
Since the King and Queen were married twenty-five years ago, a new generation which includes their daughter, Princess Elizabeth, has, to the astonishment of its elders, come of age. Looking back upon this quarter of a century to the royal wedding day in 1923, what do we see?
In 1923 George V and Queen Mary had still many years to reign. The war with the Kaiser’s Germany had been over for five years, and the ex-Emperor, who had just married a second time, was exiled in a country house on the Dutch-German border. In England the emotions of the war, the memories of the trenches and the gaps in family circles were the background to life.
Men still talked of the Somme, the Aisne and the Marne. Although the land fit for heroes was still invisible to the most searching gaze, there was a widespread hope that the League of Nations was the instrument that would end war for ever.
Once a year, in November, the nation gathered in a mood of raw emotion round the Cenotaph and at the grave of the Unknown Warrior, which were then new features among the sights of London.
Some English names of the time, whose owners are no longer with us, spring to mind: Asquith and Lloyd George, Bonar Law and Baldwin, Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden, Austen and Neville Chamberlain, French, Haig, Beattie and Jellicoe. British occupation troops were still in Cologne and also in Constantinople. Statesmen were still holding conferences in Europe.
The French had marched into the Ruhr to secure the non-payment of reparations by the beaten foe. Germany was an uneasy republic, and an agitator called Adolf Hitler was frequently in trouble with the police. All Italy was giving the Roman salute under Mussolini, who had been in power for six months. Lenin was alive in Russia, where Leningrad was still called Petrograd.
Although there were a million and a half unemployed in Britain, and bands of ex-soldiers roamed the pavements with musical instruments, there was a feeling in the air— the good old English feeling—that everything would come out all right in the long run The great exhibition at Wembley was nearly ready—the giant stadium was in fact complete—and the country was full of American tourists who had come to see what England looked like after the war. The Blue Train ran every day from Calais to Monte Carlo and it was a smart and daring deed to fly to Paris in a Handley Page.
In 1913 the new invention of wireless broadcasting was going ahead. The “cat’s whisker” and headphone sets were being replaced by valve sets fitted with a loudspeaker. Whenever anyone acquired one of these new sets friends were invited to drop in and hear it.
Films were still silent and were shown to the sound of continuous piano or orchestral music. A Chinese game called mah-jongg swept the country. In this year, 1923, Sergeant Murphy won the Grand National. Papyrus won the Derby and Oxford won the Boat Race. There was tremendous excitement all over the world! when the tomb of Tutankhamen was opened in Egypt and the golden coffin of the pharaoh was discovered.
Lilac Time was at the Lyric; Hassan with golden-voiced Ainley at the Haymarket; The Last Waltz with Jose Collins at the Gaiety, and R.U.R.—the play that gave the word “robot” to the language—at the St. Martin’s. The country was said to be dance mad. Night clubs and cabarets, with floor shows were the rage in London.
A catchword, which was a hangover from the previous year when Professor Emile Coué came here to preach auto-suggestion, was, “Every day in every way I get better and better.” Women looked like bundles because the waistline had descended to the hips, and cloche hats, like inverted basins, occupied every female head.
The social historian, glancing back to this period, will note as one of the most remarkable facts that the strength and popularity of the monarchy in Britain was no idle or servile phrase. The war which had shaken half the thrones of Europe had the effect of bringing the Crown and the people closer together in this country. George V and Queen Mary had presided over the nation during the first year of real sorrow and adversity it had known for generations, and, the war over, they continued to identify themselves with every aspect of the nation’s life.
The King in silk hat and frock-coat, or full-dress uniform, and the Queen in a powder-blue toque, and with umbrella or parasol, were the two most familiar and popular figures in the country. Their four sons and their daughter, who were children when the war began in 1914, were now old enough to deputize for their parents; and the greatest affection, here and overseas, was reserved for the gay young Prince of Wales. Everything he did or said was world news. His hatred of publicity and photography only endeared him the more to the millions of people who demanded to know everything he did.
The genuine affection in which the Royal Family was held may have surprised George V, who, from a severe, punctilious monarch, mellowed and sweetened in his later years into the father of his country. In the years to come the radio was to discover in him the most perfect broadcaster of our time. Once a year the King’s rich and guttural voice was carried, regally affectionate, into every home on Christmas Day, offering kind words and good advice.
This then was something of the general background of life when in 1923 the young Duke of York was the first of the King’s four sons to marry. He was well liked everywhere although he had been completely overshadowed by his elder brother. The Duke had served at the Battle of Jutland and later, as a group commander in the R.F.C., had taken his pilot’s certificate. He was a good enough tennis player to figure at Wimbledon. It was reported that he was seriously minded, and those who knew saw in him a notable resemblance to his father.
His marriage was popular for two reasons. It was not a foreign alliance. He had fallen in love with a charming British girl, the daughter of an ancient Scottish family. Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. She did not feature in the social gossip of those times or belong to what was known as the “smart set” or the “bright young people.” All the general public knew of her was that she was content to live a country life as one of a large family, spending most of the year in Hertfordshire and moving in the autumn to the famous family seat in Scotland, Glamis Castle.
When people saw her photograph in the newspapers and noted her clear, frank eyes and her smile, they said to themselves that she was just the kind of girl the Prince of Wales ought to marry— just the kind of girl, in other words, who would be a perfect future Queen! That was the second reason why the wedding was popular. It seemed that the Duke of York had given an admirable lead to his elder brother.
The wedding morning of Thursday, April 26, was grey and damp. To the disappointment of the crowds, the Guards who lined the Mall wore greatcoats, and when the royal carriages came bowling along from the Palace the Life Guards wore crimson cavalry cloaks. But as the bells of Westminster pealed out after the service, the struggling sun appeared for the first time, and cheers greeted the Duke and Duchess of York all the way as the wedding landau took them from the Abbey to the Palace. Who could have guessed that those mighty cheers greeted the future King and Queen?
For the next thirteen years the Duke and Duchess of York lived a busy public life. The year after their marriage they paid a State visit to Northern Ireland, and late the same year went to East Africa on a visit that was half mission and half hunting trip. In April, 1926, there was rejoicing throughout the Commonwealth when the Duke and Duchess became the parents of a daughter.
Princess Elizabeth was born in Bruton Street, at the London home of her maternal grandparents, and she was baptized in Jordan water at the Private Chapel, Buckingham Palace. Her arrival in the world appeared to set the seal upon a marriage that was obviously a happy one.
Leaving their child, then barely six months of age, in the charge of Queen Mary, the Duke and Duchess left the country for six months on a visit to New Zealand and Australia. In Canberra the Duke opened the new Parliament House and the couple returned to England in the summer of 1927.
At home the Duke of York, whose interest in industrial history and factory life was a serious study backed by an extensive and well read library, made a series of tours through industrial England, more complete than any ever made by a member of the royal house. Much of his spare time was occupied with the Industrial Welfare Society and in a summer camp at the seaside where every year he entertained hundreds of boys.
Speaking of the opening of this camp, where he was so often pictured in shorts and sweater with his young guests, he once said: “I look forward to that day from one year’s end to another.” And people, opening their newspapers and watching the newsreels of that time, knew that the cameras had not lied when they showed the Duke merrily staging “Underneath the Spreading Chestnut Tree”—with actions!
In 1930 Princess Margaret was born at Glamis Castle and for the next few years tremendous interest was shown all over the world in the lives of the two little princesses. The London home of the Duke and Duchess of York was 145 Piccadilly, near Hyde Park Comer, a house that was badly blitzed during the war.
There was a time which all Londoners will remember—between 1930 and 1936—when every head on every omnibus that passed along Piccadilly turned towards No. 145 in the hope, often realized, of catching a glimpse of the princesses at the window of their nursery. There were other days at Windsor, with the band playing and the geraniums glowing in the flower beds, when the public saw with delight the old King and Queen Mary with their two grandchildren.
To anyone who lived through those times it seems in retrospect that they contained an unusual number of sunny days. Yet, looking back upon them seriously, and in the light of present knowledge, how full of omens and steadily mounting peril they were! Germany, no longer the battered republic of the twenties, was a land of marching men under Hitler. Italy, not to be outdone, was building Roman archways in North Africa and preparing to gas the Abyssinians. Still the statesmen held conferences and hoped that everything would come out all right in the end, as indeed the country did, too.
The year 1932 was a year of appalling depression and unemployment here and in America. That was the year suicides threw themselves from skyscraper windows, the year of the Means Test, of hunger marches on London. It was the year of the Ottawa Conference and the Disarmament Conference and the Lausanne Conference. It was the year F. D. Roosevelt was elected President in America; the year everyone went mad about Amy Johnson, the airwoman; the year Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly the Atlantic; the year the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped.
The tempo of those days was set by Germany. In 1934 old Marshal Hindenburg died and Hitler then came to supreme power. This was a year of deaths and assassinations. The Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss was assassinated by the Nazis. King Alexander of Jugoslavia was assassinated. Albert, King of the Belgians, died while mountaineering, ex-King Alfonso of Spain died after a motor accident. In this year there was a plebiscite in the Saar which, of course, decided to return to Germany.
Hitler, no longer the shabby figure in an old raincoat, blossomed forth in uniform with a swastika on his arm and he was always surrounded by shouting, chanting figures in brown shirts with uplifted arms. In this year the first Jewish refugees began to arrive from Germany.
In 1936 the old King died to the accompaniment of a nation’s sorrow. George V was symbolic of an age, and with him that age ended and a new one, whose portents were only too clear and too terrifying, was ready to begin. The Prince of Wales was proclaimed King as Edward VIII, but soon afterwards came the news of his abdication. Thus, in a few weeks of crisis, the Duke of York, with who knows what trepidation, saw himself suddenly faced with the ordeal of the Crown.
Those who have written books about him say that at first he hesitated from the modest fear that he would not be acceptable to the nation, or that he was not fit to assume the kingship, but when it was pointed out to him that it was his solemn duty to step into the place his brother had left, he hesitated no longer, and with his Duchess by his side he solemnly dedicated himself to his new task.
If the nation had been drawn to him before, the mood now changed overnight to one of admiration and respect. It was with a feeling of sorrow and regret that we said farewell to a prince of spirit and great promise, one whose services to the Commonwealth were beyond compare, but at the same time it was with a feeling that life had become normal again that we saw King George VI and Queen Elizabeth with their daughters upon their Coronation Day in 1937.
It would be necessary to go far back in history to discover an occasion when a king ascended the throne in this country under more trying and ominous circumstances. To have done so after the abdication was in itself hard enough, but to become King in a world that was obviously moving towards war demanded the highest courage and resolution.
The splendour of the Coronation was hardly over when their Majesties set out on a visit to France, followed later by a visit to Canada and the United States. By this time the humiliations of appeasement were complete and war was only a matter of time. That time came in September, 1939, and then for years a veil of necessary secrecy was drawn over the King, the Queen and their daughters.
But behind the curtain of secrecy precautions the King and the Queen embarked upon a wartime life that still further endeared them to their people. They did not send their children abroad as many of their subjects did, and they kept the Royal Standard flying at the masthead of Buckingham Palace, a sight that cheered London on many a dreary day.
It is something of a revelation to read an admirably written book entitled “The Royal Family in Wartime”, which was published in 1945 and is, so far as I am aware, the only account in existence of the wartime life of the King and Queen.
“The second year of the war began dramatically for the King,” it is there stated, “who held an investiture in Buckingham Palace during an air raid on September 3—the first time British subjects had been decorated by their king under bombardment from the sky. . . . On September 9 Mr. Morrison came to the Palace in his capacity as Minister of Home Security, and told the King of the distress in the East End after several severe attacks in which many homes had been destroyed and heavy casualties inflicted.
“The King immediately replied that he would go in person to the affected areas, and he set off immediately, with little formality and only the shortest and most scanty preparation, on the first of many scores of visits to scenes of devastation that he and the Queen were to make together or separately. . . . But by going directly, as he so often did, to the scene of raid damage and walking through the debris in the streets where unexploded bombs and land mines might still lie concealed, the King—at the cost of the peace of mind of the officials who were responsible for his safety— was now setting a new standard of monarchy.
“This, after all, was the work of the supreme representative; his people had been struck by the enemy, their homes wrecked and their dear ones killed; and the King saw it as his paramount duty to be immediately among them, bringing the assurance that the whole of their countrymen, for whom he alone could speak, were with them in sympathy.
“On that first visit to the bombed out victims in the East End nothing in the King’s manner conveyed any hint of his knowledge that at that moment a time bomb weighing 250 pounds was lying in his own home at Buckingham Palace and might explode at any minute. It did, in fact, explode the next day. . .”
Buckingham Palace was bombed nine times during the war, and suffered in the last year both from the V1 and the V2. The first time the King and Queen were in the Palace when it was hit was at 11 a.m. on September 13, 1940.
Their Majesties, hearing the enemy planes overhead, looked out of the windows in time to see a string of five bombs come down, wrecking the Chapel and smashing a hundred windows. Two days later a bomb which did not explode crashed through the Queen’s apartments to the ground floor.
When their Majesties appeared, as they so often did, in tube shelters, rest centres and dugouts, they were able to talk with those they met not only with sympathy and confidence but also with fellow feeling. Their visits to shipyards and factories took them all over the country. The King went farther afield. He paid six visits to the Fleet at Scapa Flow. He was constantly in the front-line stations of the R.A.F. observing both Fighter and Bomber Commands in action. He paid five visits to the battle zones, to North Africa, Italy, Normandy and finally to Belgium and the Netherlands. He saw more actual battle than any king since George II, who was present at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743.
Although so little was allowed to appear at the time, the country, especially those parts that were suffering, knew that the King and the Queen were never absent when their presence could bring courage and help. The photographs which show them picking their way through still-warm damage, talking to shelterers in every type of shelter, inspecting A.R.P. and N.F.S. units with the dust of conflict still upon them, must be the most remarkable series of pictures ever taken of a king and queen.
It has been their task to take the prestige of the Crown and to maintain it as it was in the reign of George V. In this they have been successful. That they have been able to do so in an ago of revolution is a tribute to their goodness and their sense of service. They have also brought Crown and people even closer together during the war years, and in doing so they have shown the virtues of a monarchy that is above politics but not above kindness and understanding. There was never a time, even during the last reign, when a closer human relationship existed between the people and the occupants of the Throne.
King George is also the first king to inherit not an Empire but a number of self-governing, free nations scattered all over the world. In this Commonwealth force and obedience have been replaced by loyalty and sentiment. The King is not a king emperor in the old sense, but a king of many separate countries linked to the mother country only by their affection for the Crown. In this the Sovereign is unique in the history of kingship.
And now, fortunate in their marriage and truly wedded to their people by their own qualities and by shared experience, their Majesties will drive in state to St. Paul’s upon the twenty-fifth anniversary of their wedding. Their daughters, who disappeared from view as little girls when the war came, to emerge now as graceful and charming young women, will go to church with their parents, and those who see them, and remember them as little children watching the buses in Piccadilly from a nursery window, will marvel how swiftly time has flown.
It may appear to some incredible that the little “Princess Lizbet” of, it seems, only yesterday, is now a happy young bride with her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, by her side.
The two princesses have certainly not been born into a fairy tale. Their childhood has been spent in a bitter and tragic world, and almost the only touch of splendour and regality they have known was their recent tour of the Union of South Africa.
Of all the figures who will be seen on the day of the Silver Jubilee, one who will arrest the eye and call forth the admiration and affection of every man and woman who remembers the last Quarter of a century is Queen Mary. If it may be said that George V handed on a sense of duty to his son, it is surely from his mother that he inherits a courage that has placed a new authority in his manner and has held him on his course during the difficult years since his accession.
Queen Mary may feel upon April 26 that the many sorrows that have touched her are redeemed by the sight of King George VI and his queen Elizabeth as they kneel in London’s great church upon this milestone in their lives.
(This article was originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.266 on 9 September 2020)
This post is an expanded and adapted version of HVM Society Morton Family History Note – No.11, by Peter Devenish, originally circulated in 2012.
Chester Square, Ashton-under-Lyne (The Mortons’ house is shown fourth from the right of the row houses.)
Today, the 26th of July, marks the 128th anniversary of the birth of HV Morton, indisputably one of the greatest journalists in the English-speaking world and the most popular travel writer of his time.
Henry Canova Vollam Morton (Harry) was the first-born child of Joseph Thomas Vollam Morton, a journalist born in India, and his wife Marguerite (Margaret) May Constance McClean Ewart from Invergordon in Scotland. Baby Harry was delivered on 26 July 1892 in one of the large row houses at 17 Chester Square, next to the Ashley Arms pub, in Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire, England. He died at his home in South Africa on 17 June 1979. The house in which Morton was born has long since been demolished for redevelopment of the area.
Harry’s sister, Marguerite Ann Morton, was born at the same house in Ashton on 14 August 1895 and she survived Harry by two years. There were no other children from the marriage of Joseph and Margaret.
Joseph & Margaret Morton
Much has been written elsewhere (not least in many HVM Society bulletins) about Morton’s outstanding career in journalism and his pre-eminent position as a travel writer but a brief summary might be of interest here.
After being inspired by a small Egyptian statue in Birmingham Art Gallery, Morton wrote an article about it which to his delight was published in The Connoisseur magazine in 1914, earning him two guineas. Following this early success, to use Morton’s own words his fate was cast, and he went on to become the best-selling travel writer of his day, selling millions of copies of his books and producing uncountable numbers of newspaper and magazine articles. His writings between the wars and in the immediate aftermath of the second world war brought comfort and hope to millions of readers during times of great hardship. Even now he is referred to in many a modern book or essay on the subject of travel in Britain, the Middle East and elsewhere and he continues to be celebrated today by the HV Morton Society.
A blue plaque acknowledging the town’s distinguished son was unveiled at Ashton-Under-Lyne on 21 May 2004. Because the Morton home had long been demolished for redevelopment of the area, the plaque was subsequently mounted on a marble base in the up-market renovation now known as Henry Square, 100 metres from the site of Morton’s birth.
The blue plaque in recognition of HV Morton
On this special day I and countless others give thanks for the many hours of pleasure that HV Morton has given and continues to give through his writing.
HV Morton set great store by hats and was rarely photographed without one. In his 1951 “In Search of London” he made it clear that he considered hats a barometer of society. He wrote of “modern London” only a few years after he had reported there during the blitz that it was now a place “of jagged ruins and hatless crowds”, an altogether shabbier, graver and sadder place than it had been in previous times. To Morton London now felt “provincial”, a city where “it was no longer possible to distinguish a lord from a navvy, a poor man from a rich one”. A creature of a different age, Morton seemed to feel like a stranger in the city he had once been so familiar with.
A recent event however, somewhere in London, suggests the tide may be turning very slghtly, in a way Morton would have surely approved.
Michael Hagon, a member of the HV Morton Society, has a love of all things London and of HV Morton having acquired his first volume – Morton’s earliest book, “The Heart of London” – some years ago. He also happens to be the manager of one of the most venerated and historical shops in the world, Lock & Co Hatters of St James’s, which dates back to the 17th century.
Recently he wrote to me:
It may be of interest to you to know that we have just made a limited edition eight piece cap made from Escorial wool called “Morton”, the perfect cap to wear when exploring the “Heart of London”. I thought it was time HV was honoured at Locks!
I couldn’t agree more – the hat has a robust and stylish look and is a fitting tribute to one of the best known and best dressed interwar travel writers, Henry Canova Vollam Morton.
With best wishes,
Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England
This post was previously circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.254
I recently received news from HV Morton Society member, Paul G, that he had managed to acquire a copy of the Strand Magazine of September 1930 (volume LXXX No 476) from an online seller. I hadn’t come across this edition before so I was delighted to be able to read pages 204 to 211, which featured an article by HV Morton, The Grand Tour of Great Britain.
It is very much of its time of course and not, perhaps, Morton’s finest work – from reading it he obviously feels constrained by the title brief and the limited word-length (he even describes as “exasperating” in the article itself!) but he does manage a helter-skelter summary of his British travel books as the reader is hauled at lightning speed from destination to destination across the country. This idea of summarising highlights from his travels was later developed in a less frenetic way in the 1970’s with the series of illustrated large format books, “HV Morton’s England”, “HV Morton’s Scotland” and so on.
I have included the text of the article below. The cover picture above is, in my humble opinion, quite magnificent! The rest of the pictures are contemporary.
The Grand Tour of Great Britain
Through his books and articles, Mr, H. V. Morton has been the means of introducing tens of thousands of strangers, and thousands of natives, to the peculiar fascinations of travel in Britain and Ireland. In this article he has summarized for the benefit of the intending tourist his impressions of those places that no intelligent traveller can afford to miss.
ONE of the healthiest tendencies of this age is the interest which men and women in Great Britain are taking in the history, the archaeology, and the scenery of their own land. The cheap motor-car and the excellent road transport services which have developed since the War are largely responsible. Go where you like to-day and you will encounter people who are exploring their own country with an intelligent zest which previous generations reserved for France, Italy, and Switzerland.
I receive letters from every part of the world asking if I will outline the perfect tour of Great Britain. I welcome those from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, but I rather regret those from people living in this country. It seems to me so strange, that- anyone should deny himself the exquisite pleasure of taking a map and a guide-book and plotting his own route. But the fact remains that thousands of would-be explorers lack the initiative to dive off into England and find their own way, therefore some guidance, it seems, is essential.
Your perfect tour of Great Britain begins at home in an arm-chair with a book like G. M. Trevelyan’s “ History of England.” You cannot appreciate England until yon have brushed up your history. You should follow this with a popular book on geology.
The structure of the earth has determined the events of history; it has also affected the appearance of the landscape. If everyone who travels in England studied geology and realized how perfect is the native architecture, and how it varies from formation to formation, public opinion might perhaps be strong enough to prevent reckless and apparently- uneducated architects from planting timber buildings in stone country and stone buildings in timber country. They do even worse things than this !
I consider that a tour of any country should begin from its capital: London, Edinburgh, and Dublin, in the present instance. I would send my traveller from London to Dover. These white cliffs are the first glimpse of England in history. I would let him find his way, preferably via Rye and Winchelsea, to Winchester. I would like him then to explore the New Forest. He might stay at Brockenhurst or Beaulieu, or, if he does not mind modest accommodation, in that queer, haunted village overlooking Beaulieu River, Bucklers Hard. There they used to build wooden warships. The slipways are rotting and the wide village street ends as if cut with a knife. Only a few cottagers now live in a place which two centuries ago attempted to challenge the supremacy of Portsmouth.
The motorist should run down to Christchurch and Bournemouth from the New Forest and then go north to Salisbury. Every cathedral in England has one supreme feature. Salisbury’s pride is its spire. Stonehenge is only a few miles away. It is well worth while to get up in the early dawn to see Stonehenge.
A Portland Quarry – now abandoned
Now the road goes west into Dorset. Weymouth is still a Georgian watering place. The traveller will say—as everyone says in sunny weather—that the bay is rather like that of Naples. But no one should go to Weymouth and leave the Isle of Portland unvisited. This great stone quarry from which all Wren’s City churches were hewn has provided material for many of the greatest buildings in the world. It is fascinating to wander beside the sea in those colossal excavations from which St. Paul’s Cathedral was taken. You will discover two pillars overgrown with brambles which for some reason or other never found their way to Ludgate Hill. And in another quarry they will show you a long trough. The great stone hewn from this quarry is now the Cenotaph.
The traveller will now take the road into the glorious county of Devon. He will admire Torquay with its red soil and go on to Plymouth. Plymouth, especially its fish market and the Barbican, will repay any amount of loitering; and at dusk there is only one place to go—the finest promenade in Europe, Plymouth Hoe.
The change from Devon into Cornwall is one of the remarkable experiences in a country which is full of quick changes in atmosphere. Cornwall is Celtic. It looks like it and sounds like it. Round Falmouth and St. Mawes are some of the most glorious villages in the country. Land’s End is a fascinating place. I would like my traveller to see it on a day of sea mist when the minute-gun is booming in the greyness and the waves are breaking in white foam over the sharp, black rocks. The run up the west coast of Cornwall is enchanting. Everyone should see Tintagel. It is one of the most romantic names on the map of England, and if you climb up to Arthur’s Castle at evening by yourself and hear no sound but sheep cropping grass on the queerly-shaped mounds you will not have travelled in vain.
Once more comes Devon with its varied fields and its cosy villages : Clovelly perched on its cliffs ; Bideford, Barnstaple ; Lynton and Lynmouth (which, like Clovelly, are professional beauties), and then that magnificent few miles beside the sea over the cliffs to Porlock.
Cathedral Close, Wells
Wells, Bath, and Bristol should be explored. Wells is in many ways one of the most fascinating cathedral cities in the country, Bath is a delightful quiet old lady with, it is difficult to realize, a past, and Bristol is a city in which any man with an eye for history could spend weeks.
Now come those three lovely sisters among English counties : Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, and Herefordshire. Their three cathedrals should be studied. Cheltenham, Stratford-on-Avon, and Coventry are not far off. If you want an amusing experience, go to Droitwich and try to establish your balance in that salt brine which turns the human body into cork. You can sit upright in this water and paddle round with your hands.
From Hereford go to Ludlow and Shrewsbury and enjoy the still faintly war-like atmosphere of the Marches. There is something about this district rather like that of the Scottish Border. Then Chester with its wall, and northward to Lancaster and the Lake District. The traveller now finds himself in wild and beautiful country. The softness of Devon and Somerset seems like a dream. He becomes conscious that Scotland is over the sky-line.
Now comes the Roman Wall. The eighty miles from Carlisle across England to Newcastle are among the most fascinating and romantic in England. Midway is Chesters, with its Roman Cavalry station. You can see the marks of the chariot wheels on the stones. You should leave the road and follow the great wall of Hadrian for miles. It runs on straight as a sword, the northern boundary of the ancient world.
Newcastle will perhaps not hold the traveller for long, although its Norman castle is interesting and not as well known as it should be. Durham is the city ! The first sight of Durham Cathedral on its hill is one of the unforgettable things in England. This cathedral is almost too good to be true. It is one of the grandest Norman monuments in the world.
Now follows a district which is as full of beauty and interest as the West Country and the green Midlands. It is the splendid county of Yorkshire, a country in itself, a great area which combines every characteristic of English scenery, from the flat plain of York, which reminds you of Herefordshire lowlands, to the high cliffs of Flamborough, which remind you of Cornwall. You come south from Durham to Ripon, where they have been blowing a horn in the market-place at curfew-time since Saxon days, and to Harrogate, the brightest and most cheerful of all spas. To the west you have the glories of Wharfedale and to the east the wildness of the moors leading to pretty Whitby and prosperous Scarborough. You have the superb abbeys of Fountains, Rievaulx, and Jervaulx. But the greatest glory of the North is the City of York. Here a man can idle weeks away and find some new beauty every hour.
The traveller now goes south to Lincoln and to the strange, attractive lowlands of the Wash. Here he might be in Holland. Boston, with its famous “ Stump,” looks as if it had been blown over from the Continent. Then come Peterborough, King’s Lynn, Wells-next-the-Sea, Cley—those wonderful little stranded sea-coast towns from which the sea has retreated—and that beautiful and neglected cathedral city, Norwich. East Anglia is another of those districts in England which the traveller groups in his mind as an area distinct and remarkable as the West Country, the Lakes, the Midlands, and the North. It has a character of its own. It is gentle, flat country full of a quiet charm.
Ely, Cambridge, Colchester, and the Constable Country, and then back to London. That is the brief outline of a tour which should serve very well as a beginning. It should at least enable a traveller to focus the country in his mind. It will certainly whet his appetite and provide him with sufficient hobbies to last more than one lifetime !
Scotland, is an easy country to tour. I like to enter Scotland on the east Border at Carter Bar and move up to Edinburgh through that part of the Lowlands associated for ever with Walter Scott. You have here a group of ruins equivalent to the abbeys of Yorkshire—Jedburgh, Kelso, and Melrose. Near Melrose is Abbotsford.
It is exasperating to be forced to dismiss Edinburgh in a phrase. Here is a city of cities. It sits on its rock like an armoured knight. Old Edinburgh is mediaeval; New Edinburgh is stylishly Georgian. Holyrood is full of memories of Mary Queen of Scots and Prince Charles Edward; the Castle has its roots far deeper in Scotland’s history.
From Edinburgh the traveller should go north to Stirling. The view from the ramparts of Stirling Castle towards the Highlands is one of the supreme views in Great Britain. The route now runs through Dunfermline into the distinct little “ Kingdom ” of-Fife : St. Andrews, which I suppose all golfers-must see, Perth, a fascinating city, and. then a grand good-bye to flat country and a climb up from Blairgowrie over the Devil’s Elbow to the picture-postcard Highlands of Braemar, Balmoral; Ballater, to Aberdeen.
A glorious day’s motoring is that from Aberdeen to Inverness via Elgin and Nairn. Inverness is, in its unique way, as striking as Edinburgh. You are in the capital of Gaelic Scotland and you are reminded of this at every corner. From the castle ramparts at evening you look south-west into a magic land of blue mountains and silver lochs.
I think the journey beside the so-called Caledonian Canal is one of .the finest in Europe. Half-way is Fort Augustus, which was built in the eighteenth century to subdue the last wild men of Europe, the Highlanders, and at the end of the journey is that delightful Highland town Fort William, with Ben Nevis towering up behind it. I would like my traveller to climb the Ben as I did once, on a brilliant autumn day which gradually grew colder and colder until at the top I entered a snowstorm that chilled the very marrow in my bones.
From Fort William to the west is that wonderful country of stern mountain and loch associated with Bonnie Prince Charlie. It leads to the Kyle of Lochalsh and a little boat to Skye. This island is enchanted. It would be a tragedy to visit Scotland and fail to see the Coolins, the, strangest mountains in Europe, or Glen Sligachan, that leads, over miles of barren country to Loch Coruisk, which on a sombre day is like an overture by Wagner.
Returning to the mainland, the route now runs from Fort William through the gloomy pass of Glencoe to Oban and Inveraray. Then come Loch Lomond and Glasgow. Everyone should hire a boat and sail up the Clyde from, say, Greenock. South of Glasgow, balancing the Scott country of the east Border, is that district sacred to Burns—Ayr, Dumfries, and then, over the Border, Carlisle.
This is a tour that may help those who are visiting Scotland for the first time. I could amplify it enormously. I hope that if anyone follows it he will depart from the route as often as possible and make his own discoveries, especially from Inverness and the Kyle of Lochalsh.
Ireland, like Scotland, is easy to see. The high lands are round the coast and the centre of the country is a huge and difficult bog. When the traveller has enjoyed the peculiar charm, of Dublin I suggest that he should work to the south through Tipperary. He should make for Cashel with its supreme ruins. Cormac’s Chapel is the most beautiful Gaelic ruin in the world.
He should then go to Cork, kiss the Blarney Stone, and stay at Glengariff, which is an Irish Riviera. The whole of Kerry is steeped in a melancholy beauty. It is a place of wild, barren hills and incredibly beautiful coast scenery. Killamey is, of course, an inevitable destination. The lakes are magnificent and the country round about is supreme of its kind. A place slightly off the beaten track is Valentia. In good weather it is a journey well worth taking.
But the part of Ireland which fascinates me is Connemara. If the traveller goes north from Killarney through Limerick to Galway he will enter a country as primitive as any in Europe. This is the Gaelic Ireland of literature. This is the Ireland of the Gaelic League, Synge, Yeats, and “ A. E.” When you take the road north from Galway the modern world seems to have come to an end. Barefoot girls in scarlet petticoats sit sideways on diminutive donkeys. There is the reek of peat in the air. Peasants, many of whom speak only the Gaelic, rake up the seaweed and spread it on their potato patches. The fishermen go out to sea in coracles as primitive as those of the ancient Britons. These queer craft—skins stretched over a framework—are to be seen tilted against the white walls of the little cabins.
The traveller who wishes to enjoy this primitive country should stay for some time at Clifden before moving on to the slightly more sophisticated county of Mayo, where at Mallaranny he will encounter one of the incredible views in Great Britain. On certain days the mountains of the west coast are washed in an indescribable colour known as “ Atlantic blue.” You see this colour sometimes on the west coast of Scotland, but never in my experience is it so wonderful as in Mayo. Connected with the mainland by a small bridge is the Isle of Achill, where the dogs still go mad at the sight and sound of a motor-car. Here life is as primitive as in Connemara. Every young person in Achill goes off in the season to pull potatoes in Scotland or the North of England.
The route then takes the traveller northward through Sligo into Donegal. Then come Londonderry and the Ulster border. Ulster might be Scotland. The great sight is, of course, the Giant’s Causeway. Belfast should be visited and compared with Dublin. It is difficult to imagine two cities more widely different from one another. Southward the road takes one over the boundary into the Free State. There is the town of Drogheda and, eventually, Dublin.
This circuit of Ireland is a simple tour. I think anyone who makes it will agree with me that Kerry and Connemara are the districts that remain for ever in the memory. Here you have a mediaeval point of view and a way of life that has not changed in its essentials from, the life of our tribal ancestors.
Originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.238 on 1st June 2019
Being half Scottish on his mother’s side may have been the reason HV Morton appeared to particularly enjoyed that country’s national drink. He wrote about it in several of his books, and there was always a common theme to his descriptions. Morton’s attitude to whisky can be summarised in three words: masculine, comradely but, above all else, elemental:
“The earth gushed water. Boulders shone like brown glass. Mists hung out of heaven to wrap the world in a grey wetness. Burns spouted. Rivers rose to the bridges. Pools overflowed. New and unexpected streams were born out of a responsive earth. The wind joined in, hurling the rain upwards in sudden mad gusts, so that in the magnificent sincerity of the storm, the very laws of gravity were defied and, in other words, it was made perfectly clear why Scotland invented whisky.” (“In Scotland Again”, 1933).
Whisky, for Morton, is more than a mere drink, it is a force of nature, powerful, chaotic, unpredictable, a way for a man to reconnect with his primeval self, and a way for men to connect with one another. A means perhaps to escape the controlling influences of civillisation.
Thus, in his 1929 “In Search of Scotland” he describes a city-worker who once a year dons the kilt, heads to the highlands and, in the shadow of the mountains, glorifies his ancestors with a shared draft of Talisker which “burns within” to light fires of patriotism and rekindle a love for the auld country, “the hills and the glens and the peat-hags and the great winds and the grey mists” of Scotland. In chapter three of his 1933, “In Scotland Again”, the reader is taken, after hours on a stormy night, to a backroom snug lit only by the glow of an open fire where old soldiers share tales of battle and of campaigns won or lost:
“There is one grand virtue in a stormy night. If you are late enough you are at once admitted to that snug little room which exists at the back of every Scottish hotel, where a vast fire is always burning and where a glass of special whisky waits for favoured guests.
“The landlord was a young Scotsman who had fought in Gallipoli. We talked of Chocolate Hill and Suvla Bay and then, of course, we became local, and I was told the legend that Burns wrote ‘Scots wae hae’ in this hotel”
Tonight is Burns’ Night, when Scots everywhere celebrate the life and works of one of the greatest poets ever in a feast that echoes down to us from more simple times: Haggis, neeps, tatties and whisky*. Some will do this in great gatherings with much ceremony and speechifying, others such as myself prefer the “snug little room” evoked by Morton. I am proud to say that tonight I will be tucking into a Simon Howie haggis and toasting the great men, Rabbie and Harry, with a glass of Talisker at home in the company of my son.
“Freedom, friendship and whisky gang thegither” (Robert Burns)
“The whisky had uplifted them… It had given them wings” (HV Morton)
[* Translation for the uninitiated: Haggis, turnip, potatoes and whisky!]
(Originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.251)
(Originally issued as HVM Society Snippets – No.208, 3 September 2016)
“It is good to be back in London…”
At this time of the year many people in the UK are returning from their summer holidays to face, once more, the daily grind of work. But in this article published in the Daily Express on the 30th August 1928, HVM reveals that he is secretly looking forward to escaping the boredom of his holiday and returning to London:
BACK TO LONDON ONCE MORE
CONFESSIONS OF A HOLIDAY-MAKER
By H. V. MORTON.
Nerveless men with satanic drills are disemboweling the Strand. It takes half an hour to reach Adelphi from Fleet Street. Parts of the Temple have been repainted – window sills flesh-colour and ironwork green. A respectful hush lies over Mayfair. Fewer bald-heads than are usual shine in the club windows of Piccadilly. Bond Street faces the tedium of these days with a spurious vitality. London, in other words, is enjoying her annual fairytale: the belief that she is “empty”.
I am glad to be back in London. My holiday is officially in progress, but I have got the better of it! It is perhaps cowardly to return to work before a holiday is over – or it may be brave! I cannot say.
For nearly four weeks I have watched men gathering in the harvest. I have seen the big wains heavy with corn go lumbering over the stubble. I have walked long, magnificent miles to small inns whose tap-room walls still support lithographs of the battle of Omdurman and of General Gordon, in full dress and a fez, astride a prancing charger.
I have talked to farmers, labourers, vicars, caretakers, vergers, milkmaids, cowherds and tramps. I have become quite a good dart player. Lying under hedges and bitten to madness by harvest bugs. I have read with sympathy Mr. Sinclair Lewis on England.
I have observed the simple life of a small holiday encampment, which sits on the edge of the chalk cliffs, like a plateful of French pastry: a mere handful of richly-coloured bungalows widely spread but linked to the realities by grocers’ boys on bicycles. Such places a recent phenomena in England, are children of the motor-car. Men plant their families there all summer and “go down” for the weekend. Every Friday the husbandly ride flows in with triumphant hooting; and the cocktail shaker and the gramophone, mute during the week, salute the air of evening.
I have for weeks gone out, in a bath gown, with this community at the precise moment of high tide, and plunged into cold seas and at times not so cold. I have spent days clothed only in a bathing costume. I have felt the sun beating on my body and have observed with pride those tracts of my anatomy which slowly turned the colour of Spanish mahogany. I have played with children. I have collected numbers of those damp, grinning dogs who roam the seashore in a kind of desperate hilarity, ready to adhere with passionate sincerity to any man who will go on flinging sticks into the sea.
And I became bored with the routine. I became as dangerously sad as a rich woman. Perhaps it is not possible to remain content for four weeks. This wide, wet Sahara at low tide after sunset, with a few industrious shrimpers sweeping the edge of the sea, tiny black figures against the sky, became full of an unspeakable melancholy.
I concealed my feelings. No one should know that I wanted to get back to work. But one night I met a man who opened his heart to me: he too, wanted to see London again: he too, wanted to escape from the elaborate discomfort of a holiday. From him I drew courage…
It is good to be back in London. It is distressingly satisfying. How good it looks. There is an excitement in the movement of it and a thrill in the sound of it. It is a city of brown people who returned and pallid people who are going away. Good luck to them!
And above the babble of reminiscence it seems to me that you can hear the machinery slipping back into gear – London will soon be at work again, and August, that idle month, will be forgotten in the reality of September.
HV Morton did much to support Britain and the Allies during the Second World War. He was one of only two reporters selected to cover the historic meeting between Winston Churchill and President Franklin D Roosevelt, he served in a home-guard unit in his home village of Binstead and he risked life and limb to report on the London Blitz. Another of his contributions was the writing of the novella, “I, James Blunt”, told in the form of a diary kept by the eponymous Mr Blunt, in a fictional (but at the time all too possible) Nazi-Occupied Britain. Here Kenneth Fields, one of the foremost Morton scholars I know, gives us a little background to the story.
“I, James Blunt”
a commentary, by Kenneth Fields
By 1941 the Ministry of Information, a government department that had been created at the outbreak of war, had grown to enormous size.
This propaganda organisation was concerned with all aspects of information management that was crucial to the national interest. It was given extensive powers, having control over the BBC, dissemination of information, press relations and news censorship. Its many separate divisions included a Home Intelligence Unit that prepared reports on the morale of the civilian population; a Films Division; and a Literary and Editorial Division that produced a range of booklets about the war. The Authors’ Section was housed in the University College buildings in Gower Street, Bloomsbury. For a period its head was novelist Graham Greene who worked alongside fellow writer Malcolm Muggeridge. With academic scepticism they both believed their work was of little importance and found the Ministry to be generally inefficient.
However, in spite of these misgivings Greene continued to take his duties seriously. One of his schemes involved approaching a number of well-known politicians and writers to ask if they would use their talents in writing a series of patriotic pamphlets and books. These famous names of the time included EM Delafield, Herbert Morrison, Vernon Bartlett, Dorothy Sayers, Howard Spring and HV Morton.
HVM accepted the challenge, returning to his home in Binsted, Hampshire to write what was destined to be his only published fictional work, “I, James Blunt”. In it he takes his reader forward to September 1944 to an England that has lost the war and is under Nazi rule. James Blunt is a retired tradesman who is living in the village of Foxton near Farnham (probably based on HVM’s own village of Binsted) and his diary reveals the terrible changes that the Occupation has brought. Dr. Goebbels is in charge of the Daily Express, all personal savings have been frozen and the Gestapo are ruthlessly enforcing the New Order in Britain. Buckingham Palace has a huge Swastika flag flying from its flagpole, Trafalgar Square has been renamed Hitler Square, Victoria Station is now Himmler Station, British workers are being transported to Germany and Scottish shipyards are building German warships to attack America. The fifty-six page paperback booklet ends with a message reminding the reader that the diary of James Blunt will remain fiction ‘as long as England condemns complacency.’
Graham Greene later recalled that Morton’s writing style was ‘a bit too popular to be good,’ and he needed to rewrite the booklet before publication, no doubt to make the aggressive propaganda message more apparent. But HVM, who had given his services free, so impressed Churchill with this publication that he was later invited to report on one of the most historic meetings of the war, which was later published as “Atlantic Meeting”.
Greene also pursued a similar theme with his story “The Lieutenant Died Last” that was published in Collier’s. This tale, that describes how a small band of German troops land in an English village prior to a full Nazi invasion, was later adapted by producer Alberto Cavalcanti for his classic film Went the Day Well that was released in 1942. And a more recent variation on the same theme was the popular film The Eagle has Landed.
Another important aspect in the battle to boost morale were the regular overseas short-wave broadcasts by the BBC. During these war years HVM gave regular talks on the African Service and wrote accompanying articles in the overseas BBC magazine, London Calling. In July 1942, to coincide with the publication of his booklet in the USA and Canada, he wrote about ‘James Blunt in Occupied Britain’. Here he explained the reason why he had written what was seen by many to be an unpleasant booklet full of gloom and despondency. He said that he firmly believed that the allies would win the war but it was important that the public were reminded of the real penalty of defeat.
(This article was originally circulated as HVM Collectors’ Note – No.6, on 22nd April, 2004)
The dustjacket, by EA Cox, of HV Morton’s “In the Steps of the Master”
For this year’s Christmas bulletin I have taken the liberty of slightly condensing a passage from chapter four of “In the Steps of the Master” in which Morton, with his usual lyrical flare, contemplates some of the distinctions between the traditional European representation of Christmas and what might actually have taken place in ancient Palestine. I am grateful to Stephen Twist who suggested the idea.
In Bethlehem, Morton encounters a door – so low it requires everyone who enteres to stoop – set in a massive wall. On the other side of the door is the Church of the Nativity, “the earliest Christian church in use to-day, and more or less as it left the hands of its builders”.
“A Bethlehem Mother”, photograph by Mary Morton
From there he descends to the cave beneath the high altar which, as he puts it, “tradition claims as the spot where Christ was born”. The exact location is marked with a star, surrounded by a Latin inscription.
“As I stood in this dark, pungent cavern I forgot, I am afraid, all the clever and learned things written about the Nativity by German professors, and I seemed to hear English voices singing under a frosty sky:—
“O come, all ye faithful, Joyful and triumphant, O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.
“How different is this dark little cave under a church from the manger and the stable of one’s imagination! As a child, I thought of it as a thatched English barn with wooden troughs for oats and hay, and a great pile of fodder on which the Wise Men knelt to adore “the new-born Child.” Down the long avenues of memory I seemed to hear the waits singing in the white hush of Christmas night:—
“While shepherds watched their flocks by night, All seated on the ground, The Angel of the Lord came down, And glory shone around.
“There was a rhythmic chinking sound on the dark stairs. A Greek priest, with a black beard curled like that of an Assyrian king, came slowly into the cavern swinging a censer. The incense rolled out in clouds and hung about in the candle flames. He censed the altar and the Star. Then, in the most matter-of-fact way, he genuflected and went up into the light of the church.
“… The grotto was full of little children, silently standing two by two on the stairs. They came forward, knelt down and quickly kissed the stone near the star. Their little faces were very grave in the candle-light. Some of them closed their eyes tightly and whispered a prayer.
“No sooner had the last of them gone, than I heard the chink-chink of the censer; and into the gloom of the Grotto of the Nativity came again a Greek priest like an Assyrian king.”